The New Yorker on creativity, society and finding peace.
The New Yorker has just released his first solo LP – Already Dead – in almost a decade. At a time of great global anxiety and serious divisions in his native America, Willy spoke to us about the making of the record, the state of society and how he feels we can live a more unified and peaceful life…
Already Dead is an incredible piece of work. Did you feel almost obliged to respond to what’s been going on in the world these last few years?
Hopefully in doing so I can help people connect with their own humanity and through that, with the humanity of others.
With such a long spell between albums, were there any heightened anxieties around the recording process?
It was a very long spell. When I finally assembled the tools and time to record, any anxiety I had was drowned out by the excitement I felt at finally feeling for a rare moment like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
And touring new material. Any reservations on that front?
We did one show just before quarantine with all new material which was absolutely terrifying and exhilarating. It felt like a huge gamble which paid off fabulously. If touring goes anything like that I will be most pleased.
Style wise you’ve combined your trademark sound with more experimental production touches. How did some of the electronic and grunge elements find their way into the studio?
The songwriting was influenced by playing in bar bands which opened up my rhythm palette and working as a music teacher which expanded my sense of melody. As a result the songs had a much more versatile frame which allowed Noel Heroux to come in as producer and work his magic, creating multidimensional soundscapes and evocative tones that helped create a sense of place for the songs to live in.
You’ve described Already Dead as a spiritual state to aspire to. How difficult is it nowadays to step away from the trappings of modern culture while still remaining relevant and involved in society?
I suppose there is a different balance for everyone and I’m not sure that tension ever becomes comfortable in this world, but as a writer I think of myself as a storyteller who brings news from one region to another, be it physical, spiritual, or societal. This requires being something of a traveler and I am comfortable with that role. I think it is perhaps harder for those close to me. Everything becomes easier when we confront our deepest fears – death being the primal example of this.
Several tracks express anger towards our leaders and their abuse of truth. How do you see western culture recovering/moving away from the ‘fake news’ era?
Best I can see is in working together outside of a hierarchical employment environment and in reclaiming the discourse from social media and tv. Also in moving away from the attraction to saviours and toward self empowerment.
The album’s second track You’d Like to Be Free feels like an appeal to anyone stuck in a lifestyle or mindset they’re not enjoying. Can you remember a song or moment in your own life that helped you move in a more positive direction?
Listening to that album and watching leaves in the wind were the only things that brought me peace. People dancing is always a reminder that life is worth living. For me music and art in general are cumulative forces that serve to define and redefine guiding principles. Right now my most powerful records in this sense are the Pitch/Gusman Records gospel compilation on Fat Possum records, Lonnie Holley’s Just Before Music, and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s Give Your Hands To Struggle.
The response to your debut Where The Humans Eat must have been pretty overwhelming at the time. Labelled America’s next great songwriter at 20 years old, the Bob Dylan comparisons. Can you remember how you dealt with those pressures?
I took no responsibility for them except in my ability to surrender to the muse. It kept me more or less sane but it made me a little too adept at surrender in hindsight.
Even back then your lyrics expressed a deep empathy for human suffering. How did that strong conscience form, and at what point did you realise it was something you wanted to express musically?
When I first started writing seriously I realised the best songs were about things I was interested in. As someone who had struggled to feel comfortable I was very interested in how to feel comfortable and how to make others feel comfortable which led me to explore all kinds of themes about society and the so called human condition. I think when you’ve felt pain you see it more acutely in others. For some it seems it becomes so great they learn to block it out. I haven’t had to do that and I hope I never do.
Music can be a great healer but also an emotional trigger. Do you have any tracks or albums that, at times, you find almost too raw to listen to?
Yes I do – mostly friends records, especially those that feel farther away than they ought to be, but the currents in this world are strong, chaotic, mysterious, and subject to change.
On Already Dead’s closing two tracks – If There’s a Heart/ Worth It – you sound grateful for the strength you’ve gained from struggles in your life. Do you have any reassuring words for those who may be experiencing a difficult period at the moment?
These days I find that people in a hard spot don’t usually need advice; they need help, encouragement, attentiveness, and open minded acceptance. We all have the answers within if we allow ourselves to listen with open and forgiving hearts.
Follow Willy over on Twitter @Wwilly_masonN
Listen to Willy’s new album here.